Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine

In 1961, the philosopher Bertrand Russell said President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, because of their commitment to nuclear weapons, were worse than Adolf Hitler..

“…Macmillan and Kennedy, through misguided ignorance and deliberate blindness, are pursuing policies which are likely to lead to the extermination of the whole human race,” Russell said.  “Hitler set out to exterminate the Jews.  On a purely statistical basis, Macmillan and Kennedy are 50 times as wicked as Hitler.”

I recently got around to reading Daniel Ellsberg’s 2017 book, THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, which indicates that Russell was basically right.

Kennedy, like Truman and Eisenhower before him and every President since, was willing to threaten nuclear war.  Ellsberg wrote that this not only could have led to the death of virtually the whole human race, but, on Kennedy’s watch, very nearly did.

I remember the 1950s and the 1960s, and the public’s well-founded fear of nuclear war back then.  The fear has gone away, but the danger hasn’t, as Ellsberg made clear..

The book is in two parts.  The first is a personal history of nuclear policy, leading up to the Cuban missile crisis.  The other is a historical look at how American leaders in World War Two came to regard mass killing of civilian populations as morally acceptable, and how no American leader since then has been willing to give it up.

The Eisenhower administration had a war plan called “massive retaliation.”  That meant that in the case of military conflict with either the USSR or China, the U.S. would implement a plan that called for the nuclear bombing of every town in Russia with a population of more than 25,000, and also every large population center in China.

The Air Force, in response to a query by President Kennedy, estimated that this would result in the deaths of 324 million people in China or Russia through blast and radioactive fallout, which is more than died at the hands of Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined.  It estimated that up to an additional 100 million people in Communist ruled nations in eastern Europe, in allied nations in western Europe and also in neutral nations, depending in which way the wind was blowing.

This amounted to more than 600 million people, a quarter of the human race at that time.

But wait.  There’s more.  The Air Force did not attempt to estimate casualties due to fire.  Nuclear bombing would have set off fire storms that would have made World War Two Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo seem like the victims of children playing with matches. Ellsberg wrote that, if you count direct deaths to fire, a nuclear attack on the Communist bloc would have taken the lives of between one third and one half of humanity.  I can’t get my mind around such an enormity.

All of these estimates were based on a successful U.S. first strike that destroyed the Communist countries so completely that their military would not be able to retaliate.  If that didn’t work, there would have been tens of millions or hundreds of millions of American deaths as well.

Later on certain scientists awoke to the possibility of “nuclear winter”.   Firestorms resulting from a nuclear attack would send so much soot and smoke into the upper atmosphere that they would literally blacken the sky.  The dark layer would be above the clouds, so there would be no rain to wash it down.  It would remain for 10 years or more, making it impossible for plants to grow or for most complex life-forms to survive.

So an all-out nuclear attack could literally be a Doomsday Machine.

Ellsberg allowed for the possibility that a handful of humans would survive, such beach dwellers on South Pacific islands subsisting on mollusks.  But civilization as we know it would end.

Nuclear weapons systems today are very different from the 1950s and 1960s.  There are fewer nuclear weapons now than there were then.  And we the public don’t know the nuclear strategies of the United States and other nuclear-armed nations.  But Ellsberg said there are still enough nuclear warheads to potentially doom the human race, and there is no reason to believe that nuclear strategies have changed.


I was born in 1936 and grew up the early nuclear era.  Unlike many, I never feared nuclear war.  I figured that only a madman would start a nuclear war and neither the United States nor the Soviet Union were led by madmen..

I was living in a fool’s paradise.  The decision to use nuclear weapons was not reserved to leaders such as Eisenhower or Khrushchev.  If only the President could authorize use of nuclear weapons, then an attacker could paralyze the United States by targeting its leaders.  Of necessity, the authority to push the nuclear button was delegated through the military chain of command, first to theater commanders and then to their subordinates.

Ellsberg told of interviewing the commander of an Air Force base near the 38th parallel in Korea, living in Quonset huts and in command of bombs with more explosive power than all the bombs used in World War Two combined.  He listened  to him talk about the circumstances in which he might go ahead and launch an attack on his own without explicit authorization—for example, when communications were down and it seemed likely that his military superior had been killed.

The Soviet Union went further.  It created an actual equivalent to the Doomsday Machine depicted in the 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove (which Ellsberg said he regarded as more of a documentary than as fiction).

The Doomsday Machine in the movie was set to automatically destroy the world if a nuclear bomb hit the Soviet Union.  The actual system, referred to as the Dead Hand, was set to automatically launch the whole Soviet nuclear arsenal when on receipt of certain data (seismic, electronic, infrared, radioactive) indicating a nuclear attack on Moscow.  It was not intended to be a Doomsday Machine, but, because of the nuclear winter phenomenon, it would have been.

Ellsberg said the Russian Dead Hand system still exists.  He thinks all governments with nuclear weapons—China, India, Pakistan, Israel and others—have either a Dead Hand system or wide delegation of authority to launch nuclear weapons or both.

If the purpose of nuclear weapons was deterrence, one would think that nuclear-armed nations would publicize how easy it would be to set off a nuclear war.  But the opposite is true.  The Dead Hand systems and the delegation of authority to launch nuclear weapons are closely guarded secrets.


Successors to President Eisenhower looked for alternatives to massive retaliation, starting with the “flexible response” policy of the Kennedy administration and similar initiatives later on.  None of these alternatives came to much.

There is a chilling military logic behind Eisenhower’s strategy.  If the United States goes to war with a nuclear-armed nation, there’s a strong chance that nation will use nuclear weapons rather than accept defeat.  Rather than face that possibility, it’s logical to use America’s own nuclear weapons at the outset.

Hillary Clinton said during the 2008 Presidential debates that no American President should ever take the possible use of nuclear weapons off the table.  Since 1945, no American President has.

Ellsberg said he knew for a fact that President Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, had decided in their own minds that they would not use nuclear weapons under any circumstances.

But what neither Kennedy, McNamara or their successors were willing to do was to give up the power to threaten nuclear attack.  This brought the world to the brink of war in 1961.

The USSR had far fewer nuclear weapons than most Americans realized at the time.  To redress the balance, Nikita Khrushchev attempted to place nuclear missile in Cuba.  John F. Kennedy threatened war to force them out.  Khrushchev eventually backed down.

If Khrushchev had held on for just one more day, Ellsberg said, there almost certainly would have been war.  Soviet ships and nuclear submarines would have attempted to cross the blockade line, and the subs would almost certainly have launched their missiles.   Unknown to Kennedy, the 40,000 Soviet troops in Cuba were armed with tactical nuclear weapons, which almost certain would have been used.

American generals and admirals, many of whom were eager to attack the USSR while the United States still had a margin of superiority, would have responded with massive retaliation, and that would have spelled doom.

Khrushchev’s decision to withdraw was not weakness, but heroism.  He alone put the survival of the Soviet people and also the American people ahead of Soviet geopolitical advantage and his own political career.


Here’s what Ellsberg proposes:

  • A no first-use policy.
  • Probing investigative hearings on our war plans in the light of nuclear winter.
  • Eliminating our ICBMs.
  • Forgoing delusions of preemptive damage-limiting by our first-strike forces.
  • Giving up the profits, jobs and alliance hegemony based on maintaining that pretense.
  • Otherwise dismantling the American Doomsday Machine.

All of this should be common sense.  But it cannot happen without a huge change in pubic opinion, or in the thinking of the American military establishment.

It is hard to imagine catastrophe before it happens.  People living in Ukraine before the Chernobyl disaster, people living in New Orleans before Hurriance Katrina, the people living in France, Germany and Russia in 1914 or 1939 could not have imagined what was in store for them.

I can’t imagine nuclear war—not on a gut level.  But as has been said, it is possible to ignore reality, but it is not possible to ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.


Dismantling the Doomsday Machines by John V. Walsh for The Unz Review.  Excellent.  Disregard the comment thread.

Daniel Ellsberg on dismantling the doomsday machine, an interview for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Reality Asserts Itself – Daniel Ellsberg, a series of interviews for The Real News Network.

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2 Responses to “Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine”

  1. Alex Page Says:

    A line on the logic of nuclear deterrence that sticks in my head: ‘the reason for nuclear weapons is nuclear weapons, and all murders are also suicides’.

    It’s frightening to see the zeal some people in my country too apparently have for obliterating millions of innocents.


  2. maryplumbago Says:

    I wonder how the Venezuela story will play out with Russian involvement


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